When I was at the Milken Global Conference, several people who had been to a session on shale-gas extraction were very excited about the possibilities. One person insisted that we'd be a net exporter of energy within a decade or so (I was skeptical). I kept asking about environmental concerns, but they were generally brushed away, or, as one person told me, the need is large enough that politicians will make sure this moves forward despite any environmental problems. However, Jim Hamilton notes that recent evidence suggests the environmental problems are larger than we thought:
Shale gas environmental concerns, by Jim Hamilton: Technological breakthroughs in methods for drilling for natural gas have opened up the possibility of vast new supplies. However, environmental concerns may turn out to be significant.
Stuart Staniford has taken a look at a study of the effects of shale-gas extraction on drinking water recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scatter diagram below summarizes 60 drinking water wells in Pennsylvania, with distance from a natural gas well on the horizontal axis and methane concentration in the water on the vertical axis. All of the water wells with concentrations above 28 milligrams of methane per liter of water were within one kilometer of active drilling.Stuart also tracked down the relevance of a 28 mg/l concentration:
Methane concentrations as a function of distance to the nearest gas well for active (closed circles, defined as within 1 km) and nonactive (open triangles, defined as grater than 1 km away) drilling areas. Source: Osborn, et. al. (2011).
A dissolved methane concentration greater than 28 mg/L indicates that potentially explosive or flammable quantities of the gas are being liberated in the well and/or may be liberated in confined areas of the home.
There are potential huge investments to be contemplated to try to take advantage of the new natural gas resources, for purposes such as electrical generation by utilities, gas-powered cars and trucks, and refueling stations. But uncertainties about potential future regulation and litigation must make anyone cautious. I think it's in the interests of everyone involved to identify right away where the contamination documented above is coming from and develop regulations to minimize it. ...